the audit

Blogs Beat the Press on the Lehman Brothers Scandal

March 15, 2010

And just like that the Lehman Brothers scandal drops off the front pages. And not just the front pages—the section fronts, too.

Say, we just learned about a $50 billion fraud on Thursday. Think there might be some newsworthy follow-ups here? Actually there are, and both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have them, but they stuff them inside.

The Journal, which scored recently by bringing David Reilly back into the fold after a stint at Bloomberg, posts a Reilly news article looking at the culpability of Lehman auditor Ernst & Young. The paper dumps it on C7. The NYT has one on the same angle—a very good one to examine closely—and slides it inside on B2.

Somehow the Times thought more people would care about Sorkin’s scoop on a $3 billion deal for Tommy Hilfiger or that it was more important than an auditor approving accounting fraud. They don’t and it’s not.

Look, I know that Lehman collapsed a year and a half ago, but this is a major story—one that finally gets awfully close to putting the crimes in the crisis. I’ll go ahead and say it: If you’ve wanted to know about the Valukas report and its implications, you’ve been better served by reading Zero Hedge and Naked Capitalism than you have The Wall Street Journal or New York Times. This on the biggest financial news story of the week—and one of the biggest of the year. These papers have hundreds of journalists at their disposal. The blogs have one non-professional writer and a handful of sometime non-pro-journalist contributors.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed this. James Kwak of Baseline Scenario wrote this earlier today:

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Overall, I’m surprised by how little interest the report has gotten in the media, given its depth and the surprising nature of some of its findings.

So, hi, MSM folks. Here are some bloggers’ Lehman ideas for you to borrow. But please, for once, give them credit:

— At Naked Capitalism, professor Frank Partnoy writes that:

The Repo 105 section of the Lehman report shows that Lehman’s balance sheet was fiction. That was bad. The Valuation section shows that Lehman’s approach to valuing assets and liabilities was seriously flawed. That is worse. For a levered trading firm, to not understand your economic position is to sign your own death warrant.

To its credit, the FT‘s Alphaville blog (noted) is now on this angle.

— Naked Cap’s Yves Smith quotes at length an email from a reader who says the other Wall Street banks did similar accounting tomfoolery:

Around Dec 2007 bank I work for was approached by XXX to transact a total return swap transaction. The underlying for the TRS would be a large portfolio of ABSes (and CDO tranches – name your toxic stuff, it was there). The deal was offered as “You do TRS with us, we sell you the portfolio and at the end of the deal we buy the portfolio back, no risk, hey?”. It was very clear to me that this was a balance-sheet dressing exercise, as they were very keen to do the transaction before their reporting date.

When I pointed it to our legal dept., they said that since they are doing legal thing, it’s all OK. In the end we turned the transaction down anyway (and, in line with my suspicions about the reason once the reporting date passed they enthusiasm for the transaction evaporated).

Does anyone really doubt that?

Yves Smith again, noting that Tim Geithner’s New York Federal Reserve ran stress tests on Lehman, and the company failed all three—but Geithner did nothing to them. This is a quote Smith pulls from the Valukas report:

After March 2008 when the SEC and FRBNY began onsite daily monitoring of Lehman, the SEC deferred to the FRBNY to devise more rigorous stress‐testing scenarios to test Lehman’s ability to withstand a run or potential run on the bank.5753 The FRBNY developed two new stress scenarios: “Bear Stearns” and “Bear Stearns Light.”5754 Lehman failed both tests.5755 The FRBNY then developed a new set of assumptions for an additional round of stress tests, which Lehman also failed.5756 However, Lehman ran stress tests of its own, modeled on similar assumptions, and passed.5757 It does not appear that any agency required any action of Lehman in response to the results of the stress testing.

Smith’s subsequent analysis:

So after the Fed was unable to come up with an objective-looking stress test that Lehman could satisfy, they permitted Lehman to devise a test with low enough standards to give itself a clean bill of health.

So why should we trust ANY government designed stress test, particularly when the same permissive grader, Timothy Geithner, was the moving force behind the ones dreamed up last year, which have been widely decried by banking experts, including Bill Black, Chris Whalen, and Josh Rosner? We linked to a simple analysis by Mike Konczal that demonstrates that for the biggest four banks alone, merely on their second mortgage portfolios, the stress tests of 2009 were too permissive to the tune of at least $150 billion.

Anybody want to follow up on that?

— And most important of all, Zero Hedge writes about what the Lehman report reveals about the murky, ripe-for-corruption Primary Dealer Credit Facility the Federal Reserve used to give cash to probably insolvent banks, which pledged their toxic assets as collateral. (UPDATE: Let me walk this back and dent my thesis: Eric Dash of the NYT wrote first about the Lehman Freedom CLO in the report, and Zero Hedge tipped its hat to him in its post. Apologies—and make sure to read Dash’s piece.)

How toxic? We don’t know. Our pal, the late Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman, sued the Fed to reveal this information and won. But the Fed is stalling by appealing the decision, presumably hoping the whole storm will have blown over by the time it’s forced to release the information. And with the way the press is treating this Lehman story three days after it dropped, why wouldn’t the Fed take that gamble?

Here’s Zero Hedge quoting from the Valukas report:

In March 2008, Lehman packaged 66 corporate loans to create the “Freedom CLO.” The transaction consisted of two tranches: a $2.26 billion senior note, priced at par, rated single A, and designed to be PDCF eligible, and an unrated $570 million equity tranche. he loans that Freedom “repackaged” included high-yield leveraged loans, which Lehman had difficulty moving off its books, and included unsecured loans to Countrywide Financial Corp…

Lehman did not intend to market its Freedom CLO, or other similar securitizations, to investors. Rather, Lehman created the CLOs exclusively to pledge to the PDCF. An internal presentation documenting the securitization process for Freedom and similar CLOs named “Spruce” and “Thalia,” noted that the “[r]epackage[d] portfolio of HY [high yield leveraged loans]” constituting the securitizations, “are not meant to be marketed.” Handwriting from an unknown source underlines this sentence and notes at the margin: “No intention to market.

And Dick Fuld’s press criticism/management, also from the Valukas report:

Lehman may have also managed its disclosures to ensure that the public did not become aware that the CLOs were not created to be sold on the open market, but rather were intended solely to be pledged to the PDCF. An April 4, 2008 e-mail containing edits to talking points concerning the Freedom CLO to be delivered by Fuld stated:

“Given that the press has not focused (yet) on the Fed window in relation to the [Freedom] CLO, I’d suggest deleting the reference in the summary below. Press will be in attendance at the shareholder meeting and my concern is that volunteering this information would result in a story.”

To be clear, I’m not saying the media have not done good work so far on this story. Bloomberg had a tough story this weekend looking at the implications of the report for Dick Fuld (emphasis mine):

“I am the one who ultimately signs off and I’m comfortable with our valuations at the end of our second quarter,” then- Chief Executive Officer Fuld said on the conference call. “We have always had a rigorous internal process.”

The rigor was based on a shaky foundation, according to a 2,200-page report about the firm’s demise by Anton Valukas, the examiner for the bankrupt firm. Lehman Brothers “reverse- engineered” a key measure of stability, masking the firm’s true financial condition, Valukas said. Some asset valuations were also “unreasonable,” he said.

Keen to show that it had reduced leverage, a gauge of a company’s ability to withstand losses, Chief Financial Officer Ian Lowitt said on the June 16 call that the firm had shrunk its net leverage ratio to 12 times from 15.4 in the second quarter.

It accomplished the feat by reducing net assets by $70 billion, said Lowitt, who had just replaced Erin Callan in his post. “We’re going to operate conservatively,” he said.

Unbeknownst to shareholders, the firm was hiding $50 billion in assets through off-balance-sheet transactions known as Repo 105s that temporarily removed holdings until days after the quarter closed, according to Valukas. In the first quarter, the firm had used the same strategy to hide $49 billion in assets, he said in the report.

And contained in the Bloomberg story is this story idea from investment pro and blogger Janet Tavakoli, last seen here at The Audit standing up to the know-nothings on CNBC:

“Repos were just one of many ways to hide losses,” said Janet Tavakoli, president of Chicago-based financial consulting firm Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc. “All of the former investment banks used those techniques. All of them borrowed too much money and were overleveraged.”

Also, The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Eavis had a smart, as usual, take on what the Lehman report means for transparency and accountability, and the Journal also was good to look at the repo market on Saturday.

But the non-MSM blogs have led on this story.

It’s early yet, but that’s the rub with the stuffed stories today. If Lehman is slipping off the radar screen already, it seems unlikely we’ll see the full follow-through we need.

UPDATE: For more on coverage of Lehman, see my post on Clusterstock’s John Carney falling all over himself arguing that Lehman execs shouldn’t be prosecuted.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.